Jean Genet : A Study of His Novels and Plays 0241913209

one early study on Genet's works

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Jean Genet : A Study of His Novels and Plays

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JEAN GENET A Stlldy of His Novels and Plt1.Js c.












JEAN GENET A Slm!;' of Iiis J\rovcls mId Plays

13.1Ih# 141111 hlbtJr




ALa EJP. '1' CAIIO s, 1913-60

Finl pllhlisktl ill Grtal Brililm. 1968 by HtllIIW HIJlli/1tJ1I LlJ. 90 Grttzl &ult/I Slrtll. lAnibll. r.C! C~JIJn~hl 1968 ~ Philip TkI.J







(i) 1910-1942 (ii) 1942-1948 (iii) 1948-1959 (iv) 1959-1966



(i) (ii) (iii) (iv)


Evil Homosc-'\:u:tlity Poetry and the theatre Sainthood and language





80 105





YIn. IX. X. XI. XII.



163 179 196


205 221




227 231


To A/all Alilt,!



THE MAN AND HIS WORK (i) IjIO-Ij42 JEAN GENET was born in Paris on December 19, 1910, the illegitimate son of Gabrielle Genet and of an unknown father. His mother abandoned him as soon as he was bom, and Genet was brought up by the Public Assistance. At the age of seven, he was placed as a foster-child with a peasant family in Le Morv~ a country district north-east of the nJt1Jsij central. When he was twenty-one, Genet claimed his legal right of obtaining his birth certWcate. His place of birth was given as 22, rue d'Assas. He went to the address. It was the public maternity hospital.1 Initially, Genet seems to have been happy with his fosterparents, and even to have enjoyed some sense of security. Thus, in his autobiographicaljoflmol drl VolCllr (The Thief's jOllmol), he describes a dream in which he was pursued by a train. He ran from it in terror, left the tracks and cut across country. The train followed him, and stopped only when it reached a gate leading into a .field near his foster-parents' home. 'It stopped', Genet told the friend to whom he was describing his dream, 'at the fence of my childhood'. Another notation in The Thief's jOllmol suggests that he may have been placed with recently deprived parents, for he mentions how his foster-mother once stole some flowers from a nearby grave in order to place them on her daughter's tomb. The more idyllic aspects of his childhood almost certainly form the basis for certain features of the description 1 Allnotes and references are given at the back of the book, beginning on page 228. The sign * indicates that the note has some general interest.


4 JEAN GENEr: A snJDY OF ms NOVElS Al'-'D PLAYS which he gi"'e5 in his lUst novel, Nc/rt-DI11I:Nitl-j!lfJT1 (OIlT Lt:d.J ef1« FItm't11). ofLouis CuWioy's childhood, but this happiness, like that of Cuhfroy, did not lut. By the time be was ten, Genet had begun to ste3l sm:ill objects and sums of monq from his foster-parents' house. He '\nS ought. punished,. and hbcl1ed a thief. In StU!:1 Gtr~J, nt:JIJim II 1fZ4T!J1" (SI1it:J Gtr~t, 4t/(lr ttr.4 1:f.:tT!Jr) Jem-P~ul S~ :ugues tint Genet bcg:m to ste:ll in order to compensate himselffor being. in a mditiomlly. minded community, the only person with no right to own property. Alon~ in this vilhge wheIe fields were hmded down from father to son, Genet lnd no &thc.r and no right to Any inheritance. He consequently fcl17 accoIding to ~s an3lym. tlut he could b~ somrone only by ann--g things, :md beg.m his c:an:tr :u a thief for this te2son. Although Jlothing th2t Genet hu 50 Iu published in book foml provides direct Q)nfirnntion for this pttticuhr intetptcWion of why he Stor~ he did comment on his t2.dy thelts in a tat ptesmted in La Ttmps MJm:tl in July 1946 2S m atract from the fOnhOOmingJDID'r.41 h V"kw. -wbcl I 'W'U a chitd~, he wto~ ~ stole nom my f~-patcnts. Was I akody conscious cCthc reprobation that W'I.S to be my loc bcelusc I V2S a fouadUng aad a. homoscs:ual? I COt ar that I ~ led to teed as an act of tebeWmz..l a!fesdr liked boya ddJ I

vas ~ JOlUlg. altho~h I 'W2S h2ppr ill the ~mpany ofPh and

vomea. 'The cullcst kind oElOTeJ t2D nmemhtt took ~ Conn of my desire to be .. Iwldsome )"outh vith ~gorous. d«idcd gesrorcs.. whom I saw cydiag ~ sod of my self-indtdgmc:e ts I isn:1gined '\limt it woald be hke to be him.. I "In$ ten ordenn. At. ~I tcrognised the feding orlonss the gdntsS which atCC over me: ""ben llch the pttlCQCe of a hmdsome youth of eeea. At teD. 1 {tit no remorse ""hen I stole &otn pcol'Je ""hom I Joved and ....hom I to be poor. I'\t"a$ found out. I d&ink that the word "Uiee-~ me ~r. ~rl drat is to "1 caocgh to make me 1nnt, ~rdT. to be ..-h2t cthet people =dt me blnsh lor beiug. to 'II'2Zlt to be it p%Oudly. and.i:b spire of tbcn.-


Peth:lps because this panicaln confession provided too pc:tfcct an illustution for anothtt of S:utre"s theses, or



perhaps because it evoked too intense a memory, Genet did not include it when the JOllnlal dll Voklir was published in book form in 1949. Then, he roundly declared that he had stolen because he was hungry, and he repeated this explanation in an interview which he gave to the American magazine PItV'bV'inApri11964. However, he also added in his remarks to PlaJ'boy that after he had stolen he felt the need to 'justify and accept' his act. This additional comment parallels Sattre's view that Genet, as the extract in Les Tenp! J.{odeme! indicates, deliberately chose to become a thief once he had been accused of being one. Genet was certainly sufficiently fixated in his original decision to declare, in July 1946, that 'to give up stealing would mean giving up the thief that is in me', and to defend this refusal by proclaiming that 'the thief is still the worthiest character inhabiting me, since it is by him that I am led far from the paths of banality and into the infernal regions'. Sartre's attitude towards the Genet who thus chose to defy society is, at this point in his analysis, similar to his approval for the Jew who accepts himself as a Jew or the Negro who 'picks up the word "nigger" that is thrown at him like a stone and proudly proclaims himself as black in face of the white man'. u Fdbm that the police is ,j~ys too po~ to dlow the existence of aimia31 gmgs, aDd ~ to dismiss the possibility tlttt crime can be ~ successful form of defying society. Although this idea tn:lf be lr.lscd less on actu2l obset\"2tton th3n on Genet's 0'\\'11 p3r.ldmic:d sitll:ltion of ~ I1Wl $eeking its PllttSt foan, there is intc:rc:sting coincidence. betu tt11 his gencnl portr.lj2l of the crimiaal as stupid :md inefficien~ 2nd the ,.j~ws hdd by 'll number of professiond aiminologists. * It ,,-as nel"ertheless the quest for :tbsolute eriI. together with the ineffectU2l petty robbay Zl~ COD$t:lnt bet:r:I:pI of confeden:tes which 'Wete linked with 1t, t1nt seems to taken up -ritto2lly all his energy un~ e:ttly in the ninet~-forties, he begm to write.





(ii) 1942-I948 When Genet was sixteen, Sartre tells us, he was 'taken in hand by a professional song-writer', who, according to another critic, taught him the basic rules of French versification. It was first of all through the medium of poetry that Genet began to e.~"Press his view of the world, though for various reasons it is not as a poet in the strict sense of the word that he has achieved his greatest success. Initially, it seems, poetry came to him in groups of words, in units of sound, which he murmured over and over to himself as if they were incantations. Then, one day in prison, a fellow inmate declaimed a long, sentimental poem about a man who had been sentenced to death. Genet was offended by its stupidity, and volunteered to write a far better poem himself. He did so, and Sartre contends that he was wholly satisfied when his fellow convicts greeted it with howls of derisive laughter. The poem was called Le COl1danJITe a !llort, and was published at Fresnes in September 1942, on very poor paper with a large number of misprints. It is dedicated to the memory of a twenty-ycar-old murderer, Maurice Pilorge, who according to Genet was e.'Cecuted on March 17, 1939, at Saint-Brieu.~ prison. The same dedication, with the same date, is printed at the beginning of Ollr Lady of the Flo]Jlers, but the fact that Pilorge was actually executed on February 2, 1939, indicates that not all Genet's statements can be believed, however apparently precise they may be. The poem itself is a fairly long one, in which there are interesting contrasts between form and content: invocations to crime and homosexuality are presented in language which moves from formal rhetoric to extreme obscenity, but the regularity of the alexandrines never varies with the peCuliarity of the ideas. It is not, however, a very good poem. Many of its lines and much of its verbal rhythm are highly derivative, and the language is so obscure and romanticised is equally difficult to discover what Genet means and ; .. PUTS u-ork and ,dmircn in u Fig4r4Iiflln::,., OQ~!m:b 26 1949. The origin of the ~rtIde wu, in !1tt. :l quUId ~ Jt2n ltuc:hzt, the dircaor ofthe ThBtre des ~f1thurim. and the thatre aide of u Fijatv. J~-Ju:ques (nUUCf. Gautier Iud ~-rittm. of 1141Il~ SIlfrIiIf:ttr.n. ~ pJ1Y we deUs ,nth the Jlrestige which murderen enjoy ~ng their fcllow co:nicu. tmt: 'The themes ale 6Idtr. The tone is odious. We 'V.itnessed, fot 48 minutes that 5~cd like 24 bonn, s:tb%ge in its pare md wudu!ta:ltcd sbte.~ ~rafdnt Iud tcpll~ pointing cut tint G1utier Ind been eqU2lly umbJe to ~gnise the origimUty of pl1f$ as n..ried ~ PUYS


the series that the Odeon-Thatre de F%2J1ce b:uf to be given specW police protection ~gainst the outraged aservicemen who we:re threatening to take the theatre by stann. For an a~nvjct, jt was peth3ps the most b12tant srmbo1 tlut could wve been chosen to express the new

attitude which society bad adopted townds him. When Let PIU'I1J.rmJs .received the P418J/JI';s lit h en/iF foe the best play of the 1966 theatrical season, the decision to pe.s:fOIlllt at the t2X-payer"s expense, what many aities considettd as a deliberate insnlt to the French :umy seemed completely vindicated on aesthetic grounds. In 1963~ Genet had mso begun to reach a wider Anglo. Saxon public. The Ii1m of Tk B4kId!J was shov.-n 4t comme.tcW cinemas in England, AmeoCl2I1d Cana~ :lS WeIl2S in F12l1cc itself. Also in 1963, Bernard FnrlltIlWl"s truISl3.non of ONr .L:41 of11M F/oll'fn was published by the Grove Press in .America,. md in 1964 by Anthony Blond in Enghnd. There seem to ~ve been no serious Jep obstacles .in either counuy".lD Englmd Anthony Blond sent ll

the Director of Public Prosecutions ~ list of well-known 6gw:es who were prepared to appear in court to defend the publication of Genet's work, 2nd no case W2S brought against him. In 1964. Bemard Frechtawl's tranSlation of Saint Gtttt/~ /Klo' anti /I1(lrtJr 'WU published by W. H• .Allen, and with the ~ppear.tnce of The Thitj'sjlJ,,",a/in the same year, AfirlK/t of 11M ReSt in 1965 2l1d Qflfl"tlk tll .B"~J in 1966. 211 Genet's impotta.nt 'Works except PDmpes P/l1:111f'tJ had appeared in English. Paruloxically. Genees fame as a writer h2s inct~ 2Shis creativity h2.s declined. Except fot his later pays, he ltu written vittually nothing since 1949. The film JlfJtl1tDiltllt"* which was p.reset1ted at the Cannes Festiv21 in 1966 md Juer in London, \V2S b2sM on m culy sc:cnuio, and contained few idC3S not previously explOited in his novels and plays. Even jn the ~·otks th!1.t Genet h2.s published since 1949~ there are strong reminiscences ofms culy walk: 1\uchmc Inm. in Tk &~~ is deuly a development of lbdmle



Lysiane, in Qf(erelle oj Brest, and the rituals of murder and impersonation which form the subject-matter of The Blacks already figure in The Maids. There were a number of new works announced as forthcoming on the flyleaf of a recent edition of L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometli: Le Bagne, La Fte, Elle and Les FOIlS. However, it is rumoured that Genet recently destroyed all his manuscripts, and violently quarrelled with the person who probably did most to make his work known in English-speaking countries, his translator the late Bernard Frechtman. However suspicious one may be about any rumours connected with Genet, this particular report was partly confumed in 1966 whenQllerelle de Brest was translated by Gregory Streatham. It is, in fact, almost as difficult to find out anything definite about the life which Genet has led since he became a writer as it is to check up on the details of his convictions before 1947. There are occasional glimpses of him in Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography, commenting unfavourably on the sloppy appearance of the American army of liberation in 1944, or remarking to Simone de Beauvoir, of her own play, Les BO/lches Ill/ltiles, 'That's not what the theatre's about at all.' In 1955, the gossip column of Carrifollr reported him as selling a non-existent manuscript to two separate publishers, while Paul Lea.utaud noted in his jOfllwl lil/traire that Cocteau had, in the same year, been ordered to remove all mention of Genet from his discoflrs de receplioc at the AcmJemie Fraccaise. When Genet came to England in 1957 he apparently said that he adored the English because they were such liars. Interviewed by the Evening Stacdard, he again said that he originally stole because he was hungry, declared that he disliked London intensely, and claimed to have come from France only to see the Rembrandts in the National Gallery. From the many newspaper articles published on his work in 1966, it emerged that he lived a wandering life, continually moving from hotel to hotel, owning nothing but what the magazine Candide called "son itemelle Z'ule floire, SOIl poc/oloc clair tl SO!1 Illall/toll anglaiJ lz


JEAN GD.""'Et': A snmr (Jp 1m ~'Onr.s A..'"1) l'LAl'S

&lnTea« ('his ctetn2l black jacket, his 1ight-co1onred trouse%S 2nd his check ol"ermat')~ still n:fnsing to be .reintegated into the society which lwi rejected hlm 2S :I chlld and which he had rejected in tam. His homoSCX03lity. so flaunted in his no,"e1s. now seems to tlke thefonn oflooking 2fter yo-ang m~ in puti~ 2.ccording to the uncle in Ct1T..Ji'~. the stepson of Lucien 5e.n6mud, the person to whom his poem, Pkkw tbI Sllf"4J, lr2$ ded1attd.. .An ~s work, he S2id in the PIegIJoj intemew.. should $pC2k fot itself. The 2.uthot must dis:lppear completely behind it. Asked by P!,!]h9 where he 'W2S directing his life; he replied:



'To oblivion!


PROBLEMS AND THEMES (i) Evil OTHER writers before

Genet have been criminals. He is not the first to have written about homosexuality, and not the only one to have rebelled against society or centred his work round the problem of evil. Where he is original, and where he differs from Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Villon as radically as he differs from Proust, is in the point of view from which he writes. Whereas Villon and Baudelaire write for the most part of evil in a spirit of repentance, and even Rimbaud finally comes to a-press his admiration for 'Ie forfat ifltraifable Sffr qll; se rejerme folfiollrs Ie bague' in the past tense, Genet claims to have nothing but praise for evil. He is celebrating it here and now, in all his books, with no hint at the need for repentance. He announces on the very first page of Ollr Lady of the Flowers that the book is written to celebrate the crimes of Weidmann, a mass murderer, of Maurice Pilorge, a soldier who 'killed his lover Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs', and of a young ensign who 'committed treason for treason's sake'. .Miracle of the Rose speaks of 'the death on the scaffold which is our glory', of the cult which Genet himself has for murderers, and argues that all great social movements have their origin in evil and darkness. The Blacks is a hymn to hatred, The Balcof!J insists that law, justice, religion and politics are nothing but excuses for play-acting, and Said, the hero of Les Paraumts, is a traitor. For Genet, evil is to be defended for its own sake, and not as a necessary counterpart to good. Whatever similarities his work has to that of Claudel, he would certainly not accept 25



~O\..US A..1\lD PLAn

th~ ~pIiCl~ons of the lines from La

Vi'" which LzJl.~

tpJ1Jt IiIJlrmn quoted as ptd'2CC to:Ul a.rtide on LtJ P4I'1#'tI:1r:

st;!"(rt ~ lIT " .


U sDttrQ ., WM tlrtr ".,11. I I 1"11 qa'il rIll JItIl~ .rIm til II Ii illflllll tp?il 1# soil ~«SS4in i .Irr lttIU'Il.ilt.

Fot him, ni1 is preciselr beause it does not lit into a p2ttem. When, :it the: end of The Satt/:!, S1id te;ect1 his mothtr~ the triumph.1.nt revolutions md the reconci!ed world ofthe d~d~ Genet is himselfpointing out the: mistake ofany ~ttcmpt-in Cotton's '02udclise' him. The point ~him Tk SlTrt1U DUkes ~bout evil is that it is totll negation. md tlut .as soon u it is subsumro into 2Ilj o,"Cl211 plan it autolmticilly becomes good. Genet', whole stnlggle is to prevent this h2ppcning, 2nd his last play frc:qucotIy reads like an illastt:uion of Sarue's mnuks about 'the ontologial failure· of Evi!# ~hich tonstmtly ~U1'SU~ its own nothingncss·.

If, as Genet suggests in. Tht StTttnr, evil is tobl negation, then it C2.Q neTer be defended by any form of r.1tioml uguDlcnt. Once argument and justification ue introduced,

then wb:u 1l"C Jud'rious]y looked upon :as Cl-i) becomes somebody else's good. nus comes out clemy if Genet's views on crime and mlltdet ue compared with those of the :aWquis de Sade. Both writers blk 2bout crime; and both praise it. De Sade recommends robbery, USO~ ul1ttder. torture and iaa:st and poUlS lcom all the viauous if they chre compbin of their sufferings at the hands of In doing so, however. he speci.6c:illy invokes ~other stsndud, which he argues is supcriOt to the nom:tzl rod:, of ttligion md society. The cimiNI. he m:UntUns l!l /ftllitM and Lt PbiltJrtJpJ:i~ Ur.r I~ Bol/Joir. it right to act 2S he does, beCluse it is a fundamental principle of Nstute to destro101d or existing fonns of life m order wt new ones nny tde cAdrpht%. LiEr: era a:iscaaJrdrmatft ~ it is thc:refOlc legitiIllate that the weak, whose instincts lend tou'Uds conserwrion, should be saaificed to the desttuctiv-e




appetites of the strong. Philosophically, this curious mixture of distorted DarWinism and hedonistic Nietzscheanism may be fundamentally unsound, in the same way as Hider's views on race were utterly pernicious. Both Hider and de Sade, however, differ from Genet in that they justify doing what other people consider as evil by appealing to alternative standards. In their way, they are striving after their version of the good: the freeing of Nature from artificial trammels, the purification of the race by the elimination of unhealthy elements. Genet, in contrast, has no concept of goodness and no desire to achieve it. He is aiming at absolute evil, and the inclusion of any rational argument, of any search for pleasure, would introduce positive qualities into what must remain an entirely negative world. At times, it is true, he associates crime with the pleasures of sex: in 1I1iracle of the Rose, Rocl."Y and Bulkaen make love in the bedroom of the house that they have just burgled, and in The Thief's JOll111al Genet writes of himself, 'j'ai band! POllr Ie erinlc' ('1 was hot for crime'). Nevertheless, this happens rarely, never as a result of a crime of violence, and never as a consequence of a crime consciously undertaken in order to procure this kind of pleasure. When Querelle has killed his associate, Vic, Genet describes his 'self-condemnation', and writes that the criminal, after committing his crime, 'lives in a state of uncertainty, of which he can rid himself only by denying his act, that is to say, by expiation, and further, by self-condemnation.' In Deatlm1atch, Genet's characters act because they think evil has chosen them as its agents, in Ollr Ladj' of the FI01J /erS or J.l1irac/e of the Rose because their position offers no other way out, and in Pompes Flmebres because they are deliberately trying to be perverse. In his books, there is no reasoned attempt, as there is in de Sade, to call into question the established values of society, to show that conventional morality is wrong because it denies the Life Force, sacrifices the vigour and originality of the rich to the timorous nature of the poor, or is based upon a mistaken concept of human B



G~"l.T: .It. STUDY OF HIS NO\-ns ..\..'"1) PLUS

~ WhetClS de S2de h;s the tommtic CQ%laption of the c:m'tnU as the mm. ~or& both by binh and qtJ2lities to his fc:IIows-most of his nwn dn"rtcs. like himself, Me atistoa::lts--Gcnet'$ criminals :u:e {or the most put. stupid. co'\\"Udly~ tte:u:b.etom 2nd selfish. He may desaibe th~ ~t times, with gImring apptobuion. but evcIfthing which he shows then doing underlines how little they d~ his

enanninms.. NeUber docs Genet limit bimseJ£ to showing the bmWty

of eril by consimmly ttfaining &om ClU" ~owing my of his ch!mcteIS to dQ 2I1ything bI:1~ cntaptisingl generous or ln1tlligmr.. He opc:ruy c:oodemns both his own rom2llric 2duhdon of aimea and the aUt of absolute ail uiUch he daims to be celebrating. In Miraru fJ/ Jhe RNt. for enmple. he specffiaIlj t:ejec:t$ the glamorous vision of prison md ptisoners that h:ul inspittd CtJr~.J .a .It!"t. 'Now ~ the ptison is stripped of itt uaed o~.JI he ~ c:r see it mked, md its..m.kcdnas h cruet The in:m2tes ate ~erdy sotty Ctt:2tures 1rith teeth rotted by 5auTj; they 2ft bent with illness md ne 2lW".lYS spitting 2nd sputtcrlag and roughing .... Thcystlnk.. They~(Dnnlly in thep~C%of the guuds. who 2J:'eZS CXJunfif2$ they. ThcrU'e noW'only samiIC)us c:u:iot\UeS oftheltmdsome aimin21s I $1~in them. 'Vi'henI It'U n-atty.. I onlrwishth2tlcottld opose sufficiently the blemishes and ugliness 2nd ~t they h1~ become so lIS to bke ~enge for the hmn thq-did me and the bottdom I felt when confronted with their tIfIIW2Ddcd Stupj~. In p()mpu FIl1"Jbru. be links this disiUosianed rt2lism eYCl mote dosely to the rt"'OlUtiOll of 1m own 2niwde ~ben ~e writes th:lt :after all IUs :freWed pUl'SUit of criI, mer biJ obstimcy in ~sahlinnting,. 'VOOdd tmt is the xett%Se ofyour world-. he sees himself :uzirlng -mdmed 2nd bloody. on 2 bmk mon: thickIr peopled thm d=tth iade• .And. he %dd$. "the people I meet thae ~ lnd m eny jotmley. ~no d:uIgas. and hal"e omitted no~. They 1kein in&my!ike fish in ~ttr, md tlI tb:at remuns. fo~ :De to do_ to ~chieve $o1itud~ .is go bid: the W2j I ame 2nd deck mpelf ia the




virtues of your books. In the face of such misfortune, teats or anger are all that remain'. IT this is how Genet feels, then it is not surprising that his cult of evil should differ so completely from that of the Marquis de Sade. To defend evil by rational argument, and thus appeal to positive if mistaken standards, would not only be illogical and inconsistent; it would also involve going against his own experience, which has taught him that evil is both dull and unoriginal. Genet nevertheless persists in his cult of evil, and never formally goes back on his declared intention of praising it in poetic terms. Thus he writes of Harcamone, one of the convicts inMiracle oj the Rose, that he is a synthesis of dark and light, that his crimes give off 'a fragrance of roses', that he has a 'radiant image', and that he confronted the prison governor with 'a mystery as absurd as that of a rose in full bloom'. The novel begins, in fact, with a series of images in which Genet presents Harcamone as a bearer of flowers, and the title refers to a closing passage in which Harcamone's heart becomes 'a red rose of monstrous size and beauty'. There are similar attempts in all Genet's novels to present in terms of great poetic beauty a reality which he himself also insists is tawdry and banal, and this very curious use of language simultaneously to debunk and exalt evil is one of the most intriguing aspects of his work. If he really has recognised, as he says in The Thiefs J011n1a!, that the disreputable areas of towns 'are without mystery', and that the most dreadful criminals are 'distressingly stupid', why does he not reject his earlier attitude, and write books about evil that are as moral and pessimistic as Les Fle1Irs dfl . Mol? In a way, of course, he does. If a moralising novelist had set out to demonstrate the banality and stupidity of crime, or a theologian undertaken to prove the negative, selfdefeating nature of evil, they could scarcely have given a more disillusioned picture of the underworld than the one which Genet offers in Ollr Latfy oj the Flowers, The Thiif's JOllrtlo/, or Afiracle oj the Rose. Far from persisting in his



original, 'existential' choke by showing how it enabled him to build up a consistent ifheretica1 'WOrld view, Genet seems to be perpetuilly calling it into question by intdllgent Uld pett~tive zeference tD his own experience. Lurking behind his plu3ses ~bout the glow which perfect evil possesses, md often coming out visibly into the open, there is the common~ sense, ttgnostic view th3t absolute good and absolute cvi12.te illusions, c:telted for social convenience or inherited from ~ more primitive, rdigious age, and that the hann which it does to othm is the only rC2Son!1ble aiterion by which m :tet an be judged. Even so, Genet nevec explicitly coruideD this idea, either as a basis [or further defiance of society or as a stmdard by which to S3tirise his c:imizuJs. He thus provides interesting confinnation for Same's thesis that he origin2lly aimed at being a thief, at being 'tom apart by the great and terrible essence of the Evil-doer-. Z2thec thm :at doing wrong. Had Genet wished to do wrong~ or sought to present in his books dm2cren who are evil bec:ause they do hatm to others without deriving b~ettt £rom it, he wotdd surely have tried to teaeate a series of Iago$. Curiously enough, however, no one in his work 2ttempts to be evU in this way. None of his criminals ,ets out, as Iago docs, consciously and delibtr.lte1y to harm other people. This is pudy because .none of them is ever intelligent eaough to plm ahead-Bulkaen. Hatcamone and StlliWlo all give the impression of being mentally l'ewded-Qnd partly because Genet pretends to see the criminal a essentiilly the victi~

of fatality. But once the evil~doet is deprived ofrus intelligence, his couzage 2nd his devilish cunning, he teases to be ~ t.hteat tc) society. Genet's criminals do very little hum to

anyone ~ceptthemsc:lves, and with the cxccptionofQuere1!e of Brest they are all caught by the police a.nrl spend most of their time in gaol. He shows evil SiS self-defeating by it! mtute as well as defeated by society in ptactice. No one could ever receive encouragement to be 2 crimina} from

reading Genees books. Although.Smrc teC()gnises and occasionally emphasises



the stupidity, cowardice and treachery of Genet's characters, he does not see this ru;pect of his work as undermining the challenge which Genet's books offer to modern society. At the very beginning of Salill Gmtf, actor afJd fnarD'r, he puts forward his own, nco-Freudian view of how the concept of evil originates in human society: man is afraid of the negative aspect of freedom, of his power to say 'No' to e.xisting institutions, and casts it out. In so doing, he creates the Egure of 'the evil-doer', who is detestable because he represents the frightening part of human liberty, its capacity to criticise or destroy. \'\7hen the 'good people' who received Genet into their home caught him stealing and baptised him as a thief, they were making him into a monster 'for reasons of social utility'. Good people need criminals in order to project their o'wn evil desires on to them, and Genet was admirably suited to fulEl this role. Sartre also acknowledges, however, that Genet did not succeed in his attempt to be an evil-doer, and gives two reasons why this failure was inevitable. The first is connected with his general view of the human condition put forward in Being and NofhirJgl1ess, and consists of saying that no one ever is anything at all. Because man is always free to choose a new attitude, he can never have the fixity of being which characterises a stone. \Vben he tried to be a crjmjnal, Genet was chasing a metaphysical will 0' the wisp. A man who steals is not 'A Thief' in the same way as a stone is a stone, and Genet's initial predicament can be rather tritelyexpressed in contemporary British philosophical tenns by saying that he failed to observe the difference between verbs of action and verbs of being. The second reason for his failure is a sociological one: ill societies have a certain percentage of criminals, and Genet's social origins' destined him from the start to play his part in maintaining this for early twentieth-century France. 'He had only to go to the trouble of being born,' writes Sartre. 'The gentle, inexorable hands of the Law will conduct him from the National Foundling Society to the penal colony: When Geriet tried deliberately


32 Jv...~ GD."ET: A srL'DT OP' ms NO\'"ELS PI,.\YS to ~same this socW pttdestimtion :s if it stemmM from his free choi~ he v:u invol\"ed in another c:onmdic:rion: it is poindas to wiU ~t is preoro2iac-d. md GC!ltt lm'

memy ptUhing 2n open door.

Sutre tb'Qs comes very dose to sn~tiDg bt Gena b2sed his orlgin2l choice on :I dmzhle iUIl!iOZl, 2nd discxn-ered this only -v;hcn it 'W2S too He might thettfore be expected to tndoae Gent:t»s findings 2S to the banWy of ~ 2.Ud !ee him 2S mctdy :l victim of old-.&shioncd, semi-tbeoIogiet1 modes of thought. Ho~e~a. he doe5 not do this. and ugues instead th2t 2lthough G=ct &ned to urueve absolute evil in his life. he neve:nheIess sncc:eeds through. his 21't.. 70 tetd G03ct: he #gues, Cis /4 k IlKI:t#f by Ik spirit aJ Eril. in complicity with ie Genet's poetxY. he continues, is ·a deliberate dunning of the reader _ •• J crime without e:nmlWing circumswzQ:S'. When 'the "avc:tage Frenchrnm'· who adams h1mseIf with the 1WDe of good citizen' rads Gcnet's wotb, ht: is tricked into


:recognising tmt there 2re no crimes or muWtu:2l tmSions of which he 13 not apl-bIe:. GeDet wUzs. for Sum; by recreating th~ existence of evil in other people", minds, =i thus prc:vc:nting them from continuing to c:25t out the neg:a.tive pm of their !n:edom 2S foreign to them. nus is m interesting theory" bat not O~ that sarrivl:S a close re:tding of Gen~s ~OIb. .As will be seen when ~ novels u.e studied in more d~ Genet never l'teSents his haoes consistently- Fox example, he damDes D~ the ~ pantitate irt 0, Lr4r #.I Jk FIRm; ~ .~ thousmd shapes. chum;ng in their ga.ce, which ~ &om my eyes" mou~ dhows. knees. from sI1 parts oft= . Yet m otha' pns of the bool; we 1UC .&ced with tt2li~: Diviae .is ~ tooth!c:u. 1nI~ skinny. ageing queen. ~ ptesentation of lfignon-!es.pedts-pieds. DivUle-$ .&vuUI1te lava. 2lso shifts most amusingly from the sdnbtoty t? tfu: iromc.. 'Mignon 1lss in his supple beuing the woghty m2Pcence of the b2r:bman l\-bo tr.:mlpIes c:hoice fius benuth his muddy boots'. Yet as he W21b slong the



boulevard, wc.'U:ing his Prince of Wales tweed, a gold chain on his ,vrist, and those 'e.~traordinaty, very light yellow, thin, pointed shoes peculiar to pimps', he becomes a comic gangster from an Eating Studios film or from l\fonicelli's I Soliti Igl10fi. He betrays his friends to the police, and is eventually arrested for the very unglamorous crime of shoplifting. Bulkaen, Genet's great love in Fontevrault prison in Aliracle of the Rose, is first of all presented by a quotation from Ronsard: 'La grace dOlIJ so Jetlille et I'amollr se repose' ('Grace in leaf and love at rest'). On the very same page, however, Genet admits that the end of the book will show him Ccontemptible for his stupidity or vanity', and only a few lines further on he brings the reader face to face with reality when he writes that the skin of Bulkaen's neck was 'shadowy with grime' . The portrait of crime and the criminal in Genet's work is, in this respect, far more likely to reassure the' "average Frenchman" who adorns himself with the name of good citizen' in his dismissal of criminals as misguided fools than it is to disturb his satisfaction at being on the right side of the fence. The problem which Genet's work sets the literary critic is thus significantly different from that of other writers who use immense verbal skill to put forward a view of the world that many of their readers find unacceptable on intellectual, moral or political grounds. The case for a dissociation between aesthetic and intellectual attitudes has been most elegantly e.'\.'Pressed by \VI. H. Auden, and certain stanzas of his poem on the death of Yeats seem at first sight almost to have been written with Genet in mind: Time that is intolern.nt Of the brave and innocent And incillferent in a week To a beautiful physique, Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice. conceit, Lays its honours at their feet.


JEAN GC-.:r.T: A

mmy OF IttS ~O\'ELS A1'lD PLAn

Time. that with this Stftnge excuse I Pardons Kipling and bis vi~'. And will pardon Paul ~udd. Pardons him Cor writing ....t11.


Beause Genet does write ~·ell. in the sense ~t he the kn:tclt of using '\\·ords df'eaivcIy. 2. strong fteling for verhd rhythm and a gift for tnmmuting aperlence fum J2l1Pgr, it is possible to fotgiv~ him a very gr~t dC2l. His cue is nevertheless fund:uncnmlly different {rom that o£Kipling or C:ludel. in the s:une vny as it is different EroIn tmt of the l-tuquis de Sade. These thttc writc%s.. wh2tever the immense dilret:nces be~"tm them, 2fe puttillg Ionnrd jde2S th2t :Ire consistently formuhted. Unlike Genet, they ~ not :tInys cutting the ground away from under their own fret by telling us t1t1t the people they pretend to admlrc are re2lly selfish, stupid and cowardly. The !und:unenul difference between Genet and other writers whose u'otld "ision !~ to run rou.t1tu to our present moral ~ssumptions C21l also perhaps be expWned by reference to George Orwdl·s tsuyon Swift. .After showiag all the mti-hlUlWl and anti-humanistic 2Sped$ of Swif~s wor~ Orwdl wscs the qutStlon of whether a book ctn ~e good 'Hit expresses a J'2lp2bly f21se view oIlife-•.His reply 15 tlttt one CUl imagine a good book being written in 'a. Ottholic, a Communis~ a F~$cist, a P~cilistlf ~ aaucbist,

perhaps bj t.n old-style Libera.! or ordinaIy Col1-Serwttve', but not by a. 'Budumnite, or a member of the Ku~KIO%­ Kl:m-. The cssenti21 requirement" he mainains" is wt ~e views which the wtit~ holds 'must be comtntible W1th sanity" ia the medial sense, and with the powa: of con-

tinuous thought·. In the ase of Swift, he adds, we mve ~ had a 'terrible intensity of vwoa, ctplble oI picldog out a. single hidden ttuth and then magnifying Zld distorting it'. AlmOSt :ill these .cem:ttks 2.l'e" to some aren~ _ppUable to Genet. The only two political mo~ents which he mentions favourably Me D2nurd's Alilir, and the KenJ2ll w:titet who



Mau-Mau, the criminals he presents for our admiration are, he proclaims, 'hoodlums of the worst sort', and the people he most admires are traitors. This attitude might form the basis for 'a terrible intensity of vision', were it not for the fact that, in all Genet's prose works, common-sense keeps breaking in to remind the reader that this vision is not to be taken wholly seriously. It often seems, again to quote O~ell on Swift, that Genet is a good writer because he has 'a native gift for using words, as some people have a naturally "good eye" for games', and that such literary value as his work possesses has therefore nothing to do with either the consistency or the inconsistency of his world vision. The literary merit of his work can, in this interpretation, be totally separated from his lifelong dedication to evil, and Genet can be seen as 'a good writer' in spite of and not because of his peculiar moral attitudes. Anyone who had lived with criminals and convicts for as long as he had, and had a 'gift for using words', could write books that were just as good, and perhaps even better. This is a view that Sartre totally rejects. 'Rubbish,' I was told by a pretentious imbecile. 'Stop looking for complicated explanations. Genet wasn't saved by his persisting in evil. If he succeeded, it's because he had talent.' Very well: and if you're a failure, it's because you haven't any. But Genet's case isn't as clear as yours. FredJety because he has talent. What do you think talent is? Mildew of the brain? A supernumerary bone? I have shown that his work is the imaginary aspect of his life and that his genius is one with his unswerving will to live his condition to the very end.

Genius, Sartre argues later on, 'is not a gift but a way out that one invents in desperate cases'. In his view, Genet's greatness as a writer cannot be dissociated from his total attitude and attributed to an isolated aspect of his personality which lies in the ability to use words effectively. To say that Genet emerged from the lower depths because of a peculiar technical ,aptitude for language would be to make no distinction between literature and cricket, and assimilate the

36 JEA..~ GDo.'"El": A. STt.'bY OF HIS ~O\'ttS A~~ PI-\n "Writer of genius to the West Indim who sa~ts bimsel£ WO ponn; ~use he Ius 2. good eye for a b:ill. !n the S2me 'W2Y tlut Sutre denies th2t an author's zbllity to use words an be ~ from his tot21 "V:Orld Tiev;-. h: also reja:ts the attempt which Joseph }'{clbhon mule in his book Tk IIJ!4!frJ1li~JJ '!IJf!11l Gtrtl to distinguish bctwrcl ~~'s :~ctin: inugiaation' and his 'pr:esenttMtcl lm2gtmtlOn. For ~f.r. ~!c~raho~ our inteIka rrjcas the views of the fust, while !It the S2me time our &ealn- of ~me 2ppreci3tIon is endU2llcd hi"' the second. ~ iss view which t1l!1S p.ta1ld m the '%tti~de implied in .Audcn~$ ~ and implies th:1t criticism an distinguish rudy cleuly between roan and content. For ~ no such distinctions CU1 be lt2!lde. 1l:now people who an.ted !he couscst ~DgeS without tuating a 1Wr: ''11Iose nro gentlemen sleep together? And then they e2t their cat· ment? And tmt, one goes off to denounce the other? .As if that m:ztte:rcdJ It's S~ vdl written.n They stop at Gc:aet"'s l"'oabuhtyso as tIona ba~ to rrtrlk! the aJDtrt1L-" With complete intdlcc:tU2l mnsist.cncy, Sutte tcUlSpO~ into the 6eld ofliteJ::uy aiticism the holistic philosophy 2!ld psjchology whlcb J~ him to ugu~ in his RlJ!txiOfU S1IT 14 FrliDflj~~ that the intoleaace ~d b:lttcd ,.rum cmnctetise the mti-5enUte express themselves in C2ch md ~ ~aion which the2Dti-semite perl"onns. We mnsteithcuctqJt or ttJett Genet completely, 2nd S:artre does not discuss the impliC2tiOns of those intruSions DE .reilism 2Jld co:mmonsens~ which provide 50 stutlfug a oontt:lSt 'rim ~s more I'ODl3t1tic 2nd metonal2ppto:1ch. \\hen he m~ the c::owardic:e 2nd tteachc::t:y of Gale(s haocs.. he sees 1t Dot as put of:a satirlcal portt2it of the world of crime, but as an aspect of the crorroJive qnicisznJl of nOlllosesxWs ~hic:h ch1actcrises all Genet's work. In 1ili view. the dichotomy in Genet"s Utimde to cvil 2nd to crime utt into the genern pattml. ofbls ~()lk, -whidl nmnp or.till_tG be a tribute to evil beanse it duces ~etything to mugcs· CHis cu:aordin:uy boob," he writeS, 4are their 0\\'11 ICbuttal.:




they contain both the myth and its dissolution, the appearance and the exposure of the appearance, the language and the ez..-posure oflanguage. When we finish them, the reading leaves a taste of ashes since their content cancels "itself out.' Genet's aim, he argues, is to cdo Evil without resorting to Being. By his action as an artist and a poet who finally realizes the unrealizable, he forces the others to support, in his stead, the false against the true, Evil against Good'. The ~onest citizen' who picks up a book by Genet in order to see what this chap is all about', will thus be tricked in two ways: he will realise that he himself is just as bad as Genet; and he will have spent his valuable time giving life to something that does not really e.xist. 'Genet gives us llofbing7 7 maintains Sartre. CWhen we shut the book7 we shall know no more than we did before about prison or :ruffians or the human heare Like the devil who pretended to scatter gold coins, he is in fact giving us only 'dead leaves'. This may be the case if Genees work is read with the moral, political and philosophical presuppositions which inform Saint GeI1ct, actor and 1lJarlj'r, and if Sartre's portrait of 'the "average Frenchman" who adoms himself with the name of good citizen' is accepted as accurate. Such a man believes in essences, both of good and evil, holds that things are exactly as they seem and cannot bear to see them altered, and totally identifies himself with the characters of any book he happens to be reading. He has never before recognised the potentially criminal and anti-social aspects of his own personality, and believes that goodness coincides exactly with what is. It is, therefore, quite probable that he will be both taken in and wholly deflated by Genet's work. If, however, Genet's books are not studied for the effect they are likely to have on this reincarnation of 1f:onsieur Prud'homme, they take on a different appearance and set essentially the kind of problem~ raised in the quotations from Auden and OIWell. They also, it may be added, do tell the truth about the criminal world in a peculiarly honest and effective way. In' particular, their insistence upon'the way C

38 JEAN GENU: .A. mJDr OF Ins NOVELS ANn PLAYS criminals betmy Ottc another to the police shows the same Idn~ of tealism that Ma1n.m: found in Faulkn~s~, while the comments in f2.Ntrlllt ~ Brrtl on the similarity between criminals and policemen show that the days of Vjdocq are not yet completely ovec.

(ii) Homoslxl/aD!! Genet's treatment of hotno~ality presents both the same originality and the same dic::OOtomy ftS his ftppr~ch to the pl:obIem of evil. In both cases, thete is the same initial, apparently wholehearted, support for cooduct of which society disapproves; the nate relUsaI to justify this conduct by an appeal to any standards which an be tationaIly formulated; the same exploration thtough apetience of what this conduct implies; and, Snally. the SUD.e sinlul.. tmcously enthusiastic: and disillusioned ptesentation of it. All four of GenetJs IlOvel~ as well as his mare openly autobiographical TD;tfs j01lr/llJ1, dcaI extensively wi~ homosexuality, and there is no description ~ywhtre in his work of the more usual kinds of hetcrosextW activity. Indeed, according to Sutte" Genet fiIst of all began writing in ordet to give encouragement and Penl11UleJ1CC to his ow:" erotic homosexual fantasies, 2nd 01h' Lat!J of IIJ, FI6fl'trr If described in Samt GtlJll, am,. and mllr!Jr as an -epic of mastutbation~. Suue IDusttated his interpretation futthet by saying that when Genet succeeded in giving himsc1E at! erection by writing out descriptions of his ~q cham.ctc:rs. it Wft5 ·as ifFlaubert had deactibed the POJsoJll11B of Madame Bovuy in order to un his own mouth withitlk'. Yet here aglin" Genet is completely different from any other -author who has writtetl sympa.thetially about homoac:aWS and tried to argue that society' is wrong to pC1.'Sc:c:are t.l:lmJ. His wodt cont2ins nothing like the ~gument from nature whic:h Gide put forward in C'~". DOthlng comparable to




the implication in Les FOllx-MonnayC1lrs that a homosexual relationship between an older and a younger man may help the latter to come safely through the difficult period of adolescence, nothing like the appeal for sympathy, understanding and tolerance that informs Peter Wildeblood's Against the Law, nothing like the presentation of homosexuality as innocent but persecuted passion which gives almost a tragic note to Fritz Peter's Finis/ere. In the same way as Genet's criminals make no attempt to justify what they are doing by the Vautrin-type argument that the general co~ruption of society compels all men to commit crimes out of the sheer need to keep alive, none of his homosexuals ever argues that his mode of behaviour is natural and legitimate. It may be, of course, that this is because all Genet's characters are already outlaws because they are criminals. Society does not persecute them for being homosexuals for the very good reason that they have already incurred its displeasure by more serious misdemeanours. Consequently, they do not feel the need to reply to this persecution by pleading a case for themselves on rational grounds. Moreover, in the exclusively male world of prison and reformatory, which so much of Genet's work describes, the choice is quite simply between homosexuality and no sex at all. Even so, there is something deliberate in his refusal to present any kind of positive case for homose:l!..-uality, and it is linked with the remark that he is said to have made about Gide: that he was 'of doubtful immorality', and therefore somebody whom Genet preferred not to meet. What Genet . meant was that anyone who tried to defend so-called ~natural or illegal. behaviour by rational argument,. as Glde had done in COf)'dOll, had already gone over to the SIde of the good. If he was not a respectable citizen as yet, he was striving to become one; and if his form of sexual activity was not yet accepted as normal, he was trying to make it so. It is, in this respect, consistent for the person who wrote, in POflpes Punchres, that he had willed himself to be 'the traitor, the thief, the plunderer, the man of hatred,



destruction, scom and cowardice' not to w;mt the way he

mjoys sex to become socially acceptable. This refusal to justify his own se:mal taste also ac:comp2Dies a portrait of homosexuality tlttt is just as lUllbttaing as the dcsaiption which Genet offers of crime. Sexual rclati?1lShips. in Genet's world, are never accomp:tnied by affecuon or fidc:lity. In OPr Lzt!J t1 Jhe Flowers, fot ewnpl~

he comments tmt homosexuals are ~t immonIists' and writes: ern the twinkling of an ey~ ~ter six ye2IS of wUo~ without consideriog himself:tttached. without thinking dut he was causing pain Ot doing wrong, l\Iignon decided to leave Divine. \Vithout temorse, only a slight concern thit pethaps Divine might refuse ever to see hlm :lg:Lin.' In Alimde ~ 1k .RJUt, where Genet desctibes the ho~ sem2lity which flourished both ~t the Co/MJJI Je Mtttrtg md in Fontevn.ult prison, aU the relationships are characterised by lack of aB'ection, brul2lity and rutblesstless.. At, Genet himsdf is csold' by his friend Villeroy to another boy alled Van Rey, in exchange fo.! ~ few pieCfS of cheese. In Pomptr Ftmibar, the Gemwl soldier Erik V41tchc:s his JOVt!l Riton treated with great bruWity by his COI11I2des and J1l2kes no attempt to itttetf~.ltt Tk TDiq'sJ01lr1'44.Arm!nd maka Genet smuggle cocaine mto BeIgi~ and is c:omplet~Y indUfereat to the long prison sentence which his friend will undoubtedly receive if he is caught. Not ev~ Proust, denying his own homosexuality aad S2~ing it in. the Baron de Cbadus~ g.1ve quite so unsympathenc 1. portr.Ut •o£ what Genet hlmself c:ills, inQII~""' bJBrtJI, ~the monstrosIty

~f masculine loves~.

This is not~ it lS true, alW2YS the asc in ever'! page of Genet's works. A number of p.1ssages in his Dovel! do seem the sense of being written to c,.'(C1te sexwl desire, and SOIXlC of the d:w::lcte.B itt his work h31'e, when fust presented to the ~deI, that auiously unre31 of t!'e male models sketched or pbotogn.phed in lJl3~es Wlt}l titles like ltfalt Pl!Jli!JIIl or J./oatl Ht-Alm. It is doubd~$ thls fact which led Ron:1ld Bryden. .in an 3rticle published In the




Observer in September 1966, to claim that 'no other writer seized more strongly on the imagination of the 1950's, creating a literary cult of the tough, the "butch" and bisexual, the English and American equivalents of Genet's world of the hustlers, ponces and drag queens of Montmarti:e'. The themes of Genet's work, Bryden argued, had been 'diluted and absorbed into tlle broader fashions of sexual permissiveness, butch clothing Qeather jackets, tight trousers and the rest) and general anti-establishment bolshlness'. These remarks do draw attention to one of the several ways in which Genet's novels enlarge the reader's imaginative experience by enabling him to see how the world can appear to the homosexual: inhabited by eminently desirable males, whose trousers, belts, thighs and shoulders glow with the same kind of se."illal qualities which most men find in the latest fashions of female attractiveness. However, just as Genet begins by singifig the praises of evil and then shows how banal it is, the splendidly attractive males whom he presents in his poems and in certain pages of his novels are soon revealed in a very different light. Maurice Pilorge, for example, is addressed in Le COl1danmc a Mort as a beautiful Greek shepherd, with eyes like roses and hair powdered with clear stars of steel. Yet on the very :first page of Ollr Lad)' of the Flowers, we ~ .,learn that he killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of less than a thousand francs. Stilitano, whom Genet follows "around Spain and Holland with dog-like devotion, is a coward, Divers, the handsomest boy at :Mettray is syphilitic and betrays his accomplice Harcamone to the police, and even Querelle, the most virile and enterprising of Genet's criminals, feels the need to e.~iate his crimes by a masochistic relationship with a brothel-keeper and a police~. Genet's insistence on ramming the stupidity and cowardice of his heroes down the reader's throat is the most effective ~ti-aphrodisiac that a moralising writer could find, for the~e 15 a wide difference between showing that love can still persist in spite of weaknesses and perversity, and the

42 .JEAN CE:re'l': A STUDT OP ms NOvn.s A.~ PLATS decision to deprive one's duacters of Illy redeeming fC:1turcs whatsoever apart from a somewhat ambiguotlS saual chaon.. Indeed, Genet goes so far ~ to Sllggcst in OIlT Lm!J ofthe F/mJ·er~ tmt ill homosenW desires ate; in the final amlysis~ doomed to fmsttation: the attr:aaive Dl21e is desirable because ofbis virile masculinity. buthe immediately loses this attraction when he responds to the bomosauallts advances. Mter all~ the clearest sign of virility is an intense and exclusive liking for te2l women. ~fignon-les-petits­ pieds may well proclaim tmt 'A JlUle who {ncb another m21e is 2. double male'~ but ~ Genet suggests, and 2S Sutte m2kes ap1ici~ this is not at all the ase. He .is merely 'a femle without rcilising it'. 2..Qd the longer Mignon associates with Divine the more feminine he becomes.. Sutre 2cknowletlges tb2t Genrt gives a very hostile pottr.tit of homosexwility, but he docs not intap.ret this 2S 2. rt2SSt1.t2.Qce to the ordia:tty reader dut his saual tastes an; 2fte1: all, prefcable to those of Genet. IastCtd, he presents those puS3ges in. which Genet speW Iyrially of the boys he finds samlly exciting 2S ret anomer war fa which he revenges hims~ through liteatua; 04 the society that originally used words to band the te:rm -thie£» upon him. ·Homosaual bcatISe of the power of words', be writes, "we taste {OI 2. moment, in the realm of the imagUwyJ the forbidden pleastUe oftaking a mu1 2nd being taken, and we cannot taste it 'Without honifring ourselves.· This may be true for some R:lders, but a number of criticisms can be made of this new vwtion on the theme that 'When reading Gen~ the Just becomes Jc::m Gmet _ •.•• md is thus ' ••• tlXJlI2lJt ~ the spirit of Evil The 6nt is that Sutre's pictuI~ of the Just :Arm is a figment of his i.Jm.gination, a arlCltw:e based on a selection of ideas from highly cottscn'auvC', n:attioIWY. late nineteutthc:a1tmy authors such as ~[auria: Bures and Pall! Bourgc::Sutte himself seems to recognise the wC3kness of his approach when he writes tfult '"the ideal Just AWl does aot ~d anything', and it is only someone wbo h2d never p •



opened a book ot listened to the radio, who could still imagine, in this post-Freudian age, that he possessed total sexual normality. 'All right,' the modem Just Man might say, 'so I can see what it is like to be a homoseA."Ual when I read Genet. I could see what it was like to have a passion for under-age girls when I read Lolita, and this probably means that a part of me is that way inclined as well. It also means that Genet and Nabokov are good writers. But if I am to believe what psychologists tell me, everyone is a bit odd. An eminent anthropologist once said to me of Pauline Reage's Histoire d'O, Cje dlfte qlllcol1qlle de Ie lire sans bat/der." It struck me at the time that he was an honest man.'* The second criticism is a more purely literary one, and concerns the theory of reading assumed as correct in Sail1t GC1Iet, aclor atld fJlartyr. When we read, argued Sartte, in What is Literatllre?, we bring the characters in a novel to life by lending them our ability to feel passion, impatience, anger or excitement. Unless we willingly allow ourselves to be alienated in this way, the novel will remain merely a series of inanimate signs. This is a valid point, but Sartte then goes on, in Sail1t Genet, to write as if the reader of a novel were totally alienated and completely deprived of any power of critical reflection. For the theory of reading that Sartte assumes in SailJt Gmet to be true, everyone would have to be like the lady who leaped from her seat during a performance of Othello and screamed: 'You great big black fool, don't you seel', or the Arabian tribesmen who shoot at the villain when they see a Western. The 'willing suspension of disbelief' applies just as much to the novel as it does to the theatre. If it did not, then the reader of Great ExpectatiollS would not be able simultaneously to feel Pip's embarrassment when Jo comes to visit him in London, and condemn this embarrassment as snobbish and unjustified. In the case of the homose.~ality in Genet's novels, the reader's ability to retain a certain critical detachment is' strengthened by the knowledge that the young man

44 JFL~ GENEr: A snmy OF Ins ~O\~ AND PLAYS dc:saibed with such C,"ocaU\·e appreci2tion will, :as bu bet'1l S~~ tum out to be towudlr. stupid. dishonest and Wl. faithful. Bulhen, for cnmplC; in Mirtlrll ~ 1& RM~. is ,. charattet whose initial description by Genet leads Sartre to write: 'Ifl mve the slightest indi.Mtion fot men, even if it is repressed to my '.ery depths~ aught, constnined, in the sh2me of 2.vo'\\ing my t2Stes to myself.. The subsequent

development of the plot, ho~er, an only reasSUtt the Just hl:J.n tint he "nS quite tight to !nvc repressed w~tcver homosCXU2l leanings he possessed. Otherwise, he would Wove md to confront Bulkacn·s grimy neck, bear with his lies, stupidity and co",'Udi~ ~d neva be sure which other pcISon he was reilly s~tking up with. Smre remarks tlut Gcnet"s worst enemies ~re to be found among homosauaIs. ~d the statement is not difficult to beI.i~e. The lUuI impression left by Genet~s no,?els is, in this ICSpect, m:d~ goUS with the imp:1ct of Lados·s La LidisurJ tim:l!"lltfI: both authors begia by d~a:i'bing « cerWa form of sexaal behaviou!'-seduction. of the innocent and heterosatW. promiscuity for 1..2dos. homosC%U2lity for Genet-in terms th2t imply approbation mld ~cite both ronnlnnte 2nd =tpplDv21; the further one reads. ho'W~er, the less attt:lctive the activity becomes, until in the end it is not difficult to believe L:tclos's claim that his novel ~ meant to be moal, or to present Genet as a aitic of the sexwl tastes tb:lt he him$e1£ £hunts. lhe comparison should not be takm too fus since l.3clos is writing from a consistent mom ,-iewpoint whereas Genet is not. Nevc.n:helc:ss. it docs highlight the wide difference between Genet and those: author.; who.1ike Gide Ot D. H.l.awrence, put forwud an unorthodox new of sa which they ate p~ to support on moru and socbl grounds. To kiv-e denied entty .into EDgJmd of Gdl~s works on the ground th2t they might depnve and co.ttUpt shows that ther can have bem rt:ld only. rather superllcW1y. in the, same way that the prosecution of Flaubc:n for having written an Urunom book in ltllJt!a1l1t BM'4!J W2S undertaken on rather inadequate C\idence.



(iii) Poetry, l'e{r/is11I and the theatre In the interview which he gave to PlaJ'bf!.J') Genet did in fact criticise some of his own works by saying that on those occasions when he wrote in order to excite SeA-ual emotion, he was using literature and art incorrectly because he was not being true to 'poetry'. Although few critics have argued that Genet's poems were poetic in any sense other than the purely formal one of being written in conventional metres) writers as different as Jean Cocteau and Philip Toynbee have recognised a poetic quality in his work as a whole. In so doing, they have undoubtedly responded to Genet's intention, for he wrote of The Thief's jOllnltl/ that: 'The aim of this account is to embellish my earlier adventures, in other words, to e.~ttact beauty from them, to find in them the element which today will elicit song, the only proof of this beauty.' Earlier in the same book he completely subordinates ethical to aesthetic considerations when he contends that 'the beauty of a moral act depends upon the beauty of its eA-pression. To say that it is beautiful is to decide that it will be so. It remains to be proven so. This is the task of images, that is, of the correspondences with the splendours of the physical world'. At least in theory, his books transcend the ugliness of his life, which thus becomes sacred by the art which it inspires. 'My victory is verbal" he writes in The Thief's jOllrtJoJ, in a phrase which Sartre takes as the title for his chapter on Genet's aesthetic achievement, 'and lowe it to the richness of the terms, but may the poverty that counsels such choices be blessed.' These are far-reaching ambitions, and a study of Genet's work tends to reveal the same gap between declared intention and actual achievement which characterised his treatment of evil and homoseA-uality. In the same wa.yas satirical writers of the past have emphasised the ba.nality of lower middle-class life by describing it in mock-heroic terms, the high-flown, poetic language which Genet uses to describe his own miserable adventures serves only to underline how

46 JEAN GE!'."'E.T: A sttmy OF IUS !-:O\'ELS A.'ID PLAn very tlwdry and depressing the ICtlity u-zs. fIe come$ near to recognising this in a puS3ge .in },linzrk oj fix ]?J,rt when be lnltes; ~t is not to be wondered at tmt the !nost wretched of hWl:Wl lives is related in words tb2.t 2te too beautifuL The magnffia:nc:e of my ale springs 112tunlly (2$ a res-uIt of my mod~ too, and my sh2me at having b«n 50 Wlb2ppy)

frorn the piti2bJe mom~ts of my entin: life,' md there arc momeDts when his books become rither dehDet:ztcly or ,-cddcnt3lly funny bcause of the estmne contrut between his glamorous style :tnd his 5ubject mltter. The%e m: two other relSons for questioning Genet's c:Wm that be writes only to rc:ilise his own ided of poetIy. The. first of these is that the applits only to one :aspect of his work 2nd apparently discounts those fe:ltures of his nm·ds ~hich English aitics, in puticubr, Jn~e found

espec:W1y nlaable. They ha~e nearly :all echoed Simon R1l",c:n's judgment that while ~Gdlct the pttac:he:r is an infhted bore'. there JXlust be paise for 'Genet the chronicler of low life', and there is no doubt tb3t, especi:illy in }.firarlt DJ the }Wt, Genet gins a superb picture of prison lift; its


hotIO~ emotional atmosphere and social rom-


plenty. In OIlT .LmlJ Iht Fltnnn andQlJffllk 1/Brtst he also offen " &sc:inating ~a:ount of homosenW problems and beMviollr, one 2Il the more intriguing because it is based on no convenuoml ethial standards. ~rottO,",erJ ~yone who reads Genet's novels primuily for the tt:Uls1igu.t:rtioa of his aperialCC into poetic tcans is dmost boWld to be dis .. appointed. ReLltimy few of his tnges even try to acbiet'e this. wd they are sutroWlded by much moze .immediately .interesting raIistic p3S53ges. There is ~ 2 second problem in the ddinirion which Genet himself gives of pocttyJl for this rudy Setm$ to apply to any of the phr.tses in his books whim do CDnt2inlangu:lgeused in its high~ most sensitive and most petceptive fann. Thus he w.tites. in 01lT Lm!J tif the Fltm'tn, that poetty ·always pulls the ground from und:r y~ur feet ~d sucks you into the bosom of a wondafuI mght. A poetlc work, he



maintains, annuls conllicts, and poetry itself is 'Ia nptllre (011 plutot fa reJ1tontre all poilJt d/l Tlptllre) drl visibk et de i'invisibJe' ('the break [or rather the meeting at the breaking point] between the visible and the invisible'). This mayor may not be the case, and the accuracy of these definitions is quite obviously not a question which can be decided by rational discussion or analysis. Anyone who maintains he has had a poetic a-perience of this kind is rather in the position of a mystic who claims to have had an intuition of God: what he says is in no way empirically verifiable. What is empirically verifiable, however, is that Genet's wotk contains many phrases which are poetic in a mote traditional sense of the word. Thus when he speaks in Miracle of the Rose of 'lin pClplc ilwisible aforce d'etre 110flJbrCl(x' (a people invisible by virtue of their number'), or describes, in Ollr Latfy of the FfOJvers, a street as being 'oJorne comme 11/1 malin d'insoomie' ('dismal, like a moming of insomnia'), or describes Divine as writhing about 'co1lJOJe fin copeatl fit SOIlS la varlope' ('like a shaving from a turning lathe'), he is using images of a fairly traditional kind and doing so very successfully. Similarly, his remark that each object 'apporte dans fa challJbre sa jascitlatiol1 dtl larcitl breJ COOUJJe 1111 oppel desYCIIX' ('brings into the 1:00m the fascination of petty theft that comes as swiftly as a glance'), does convey something of his own attitude to theft. Nor are all his images totally devoid of humour. In The Screens, a character is insulted by being told that his skin is as depressed as '1111 viellx cache-col etl soie alltollr dll COIl d'im ins!itll!Cllr laiqlle' ('an old silk scarf round the neck. of a lay schoolteacher'), and the imaginative accuracy of the social observation in this phrase never failed to raise a laugh when the play was performed. There are, it is true, many phrases in Genet's work where the poetry and images defy analysis. His description of the popular novels as being written on 'lin papier spollgief(x--cooJflle !'est, dit-oll, la consciCllce des vilains fllCSsiellrs (jlli dtbal/chen! les et1fants' ('as spongy as the .consciences of nasty gentlemen who debauch children') is one example, and the remark that someone has 'des gena/IX paims


j£A."l GD,'ET: .A

Ii bl4IL~


grli!s rtjllltraitl1t fillJt/ligt11(t tlhuplrlt thJ ,-illlgr III

I71JfligllU' rJY.l~ knees so lovely th:at they reBected the despente lntdlJgence on the &ces of mystics') is mother. Neverth~C$s, it is not impossible to imagine 1. satis{actolj

aplutltIo!l for the curiously dfccti\"e impression which such phases do leave on the mind, 2nd one which would not

involve the :lDlluIment of ill intellectual faculties whlch Gmet's own definition seems to invoke. In short, there is often the same dichotomy in Genet's litemty work between {onnal sbtement :md actU2l achievement as there is in his attitude towards society and towards sa. In practice, he is constantly moving 1.W!lY from the posjtion which be claims to be t:lking up. criticising the cult ofern and the pnttZcc of homosc:m2lity when he cWms to be a1dotsiag th~ communicating with his reader in more: or less tr.tditiotW liteIUj terms while ~t the same time denying tfutt 2111 such rommuniCltion is his aim. His theatre_ in this res~ is no freer (rom this dichotomy dun his novels. Theorctially. and in the news of most of his critics, dl his pbrs exemplify the ~esthetic aedo which he put forward in 1m pm:u:t to Ul B()t:11tl in 1954 and in his uti," a Roger Bun in 1966~ In both these tats. he argues that the theatre should not reflect socW reality. should not aate ch2ncter,

and should Dot entemin the spectator. It should" in the image cl10scn by :,Mmin Esslin for his chapter on Genet in Tht Tkl1JrI t{ IN AbJIITJ. ac:lte a ·Ihll ofMitrots' in which IJl2D. is 'in.ao12bly trapped by an endless progression of i.r.mges th2t ace merely his own distorted reflection-•.Another 'malysis of Genet's theatre th%t he himself woold probably be prepared to nadcrwrite is the one put IQrwud by Robert Btustein, in his Tlxd/I'( afRn'O/I. There, the ugument is tb3t Gen~s plays tepresent the sppliatio.a of Antonia Art:tud's

theory on the th~tre of cmdty", and are thus ~ liberation of DWl,'S violent, iuauomJ, subconscious drives. This is cemdnly how Genet 5eem5 to see the {unction ofthe the:ltre, for in his 1954 ptdace to Lu Entices he speaks with sppronl of wb3t the theatIe would be like with the ~fau 1ofau-aa



explosion, presumably, of the kind of primitive violence evoked at times in The Blacks. Genet's plays undoubtedly do possess the qualities which Ivfattin Esslin and Robert Brustein describe, and he is consequently well within the mainstream of mid-twentieth-century avant-garde writing. Like Ionesco and Beckett, he does show a world in which man is alienated fromhimselfby language and self-consciousness, and like Antonin Artaud or the Peter Weiss of the .Alorat-Sode, he does tty to create a kind of inspired rapture in the theatre by concentrating on themes of extreme violence. Nevertheless, in the same way that his novels both sing the praises of evil and homoseA-uality and show them in an ironic, critical light, so, in his plays, reality keeps breaking through and offers a more conventional type of theatrical experience in addition to the avant-garde challenge. Thus Hatlte Sllrveillal1ce (DeathnJatch) makes a statement about a particular type of criminal and a particular feature of prison life, The Maids is a study in the psychology of resentment and The Ba/col!J is about the relationship between real and imaginary power in modem society. Both The Blacks and The ScrmJS deal with the problem of violence in a colonialist or neo-colonialist conteA"t, as well as with the wider issues of dignity and self-awareness among recently oppressed people. The treatment of these social and psychological themes is, of course, never realistic in the conventional way. As Genet himself said in Ollr La4Y oj the Plowers, we must lie in order to tell the truth. His plays are presented with every insistence upon fiction and theatricality, but they nevertheless, by a strange and effective paradox, give insight into a reality which is both recognisable as our own and revelatory of what lies behind everyday appearances.

(ip) Sainthood dnd lmlg/ldge There is one further theme in Genet's work that should be mentioned before each of his books is discussed separately.



~t is tMt of Genet says that, for him, h JlJifJJlfl IS the most bC2utifu} word inhuman langu.2ge, and he clahns that both he and a number of the characters in his novels and pays ~ inspired by the desire to become saints. SoIangt; in TOe Afllidr. speal-s of 'the eternal couple of the criminal2.tld the saint', and Genet says of Divine, the homosexual prostitute of 0111' Lrtfy of tIN Fltm·tr.r, that he will 'gradually delivu her from evil, and, holding her by the hand, Jead her to saintliness'. His own ambition, he claims in Tk Thitj'l J()II111a~ is to have people say of him ~he js a Wnt-i)!'. pr~fenlbly, he was 2. saint'.. Few aspects of Genet's worle are lDorc difficult to Wldmtmd and apprec.i2te than this insistence upon sainthood, espedally as the concept is never integn.ted into the plot of his novels and plays in the way that hi~ treatment of evil md homosauality is. It thus n:ma.ins on the sutface of his work, apparently a purdy ~eIbal manifestation of that desire to shock the bourgeois reade:t which has cbancterised so much French literature

since romanticism.. TIlis, indeed, is the apbmtion which Same te1lt2tivdy puts forward at one point mhis study in order to aplain the fcequencywith which Genetmentions sainthood jn tbemost utilik:dy rontats. Gc:net~ he writes, t2lces in 'm.n~ structing aberrant notions, the aim of which is to shd:e th~ tranquil assunmce of honest folk'. Lat~r in his .nalysis. it is true, Sartre rejects his particular expLulatiozz, 4l1d sates tlut Genet's sainthood should be seen as pan of his misguided attempt to live on a. mode of pure existence rather thm of cffed:ive action, but it is nevertheless difficult to dismiss the fiat possibility absolutely. Indeed, it is sometimes tempting t() go even fu.tther tlw1 this, and to ~tcrprct so~c. of Genet's rematks 2bout sainthood as deliberately sannsmg themorc extreme implications of the Iem:uk by P~guywhich Gr.lbam Greene paced at the beginning of The HiaTt of Jht AII1If,,: cNJlI';,sr lJJJ.Ui rDJJlpiltlJ1 ftLt It pkhtllr m ",aliire ~t ~hrI/it11ll. Nil/, si n Il'fl I, JoinJ! Thus when Genet writes m Alirrrfle qj 1« &r, that s2inthood ·js also .retOgnised by the



following: that it leads to Heaven by way of sin', he is canying Maunac's attitude towards Therese Desqueyroux and Graham Greene's view of Pinkie to their logical conclusion: if these characters are saved because of their sin, then Harcamone, the child-murderer, and Divers, the traitor, have an even greater hope of salvation. Once the sinner is equated with the saint, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity discounted in favour of the clearer perception of reality afforded by actually sinning, there is no limit to the claims that can be made. It is extremely doubtful, however, if Genet ever consciously satirises anyone's views. Although a number of passages in Pompes Frmebres or The Thiefs jor/rnal often produce complete revulsion from the ideas or institutions which he enthusiastically praises, this is almost certainly unintentional. There seems no reason to doubt that he intends his remarks about sainthood to be taken seriously, in spite of the fact that he completely distorts the normal meaning of the word. What he does is take only two aspects of sainthood-the quest for absolute humility and the renunciation of all human pleasures-ruld present them as if they were the whole thing. He totally ignores the fact that sainthood has all the other connotations of holiness, patience, moral perfection and genuine devotion to the wellbeing of others. The characters whom he describes as saints in his books act for the most part in complete defiance of these moral and spiritual values, whose existence Genet does not even mention. This Humpty Dumpty-like attitude towards language raises yet another literary and philosophical question: can a writer expect his readers to follow him when he takes a word and strips it of so many of its normal connotations that he virtually gives it a new meaning? As long as Genet is writing down his stories on sheets of brown paper, and intending them for no eyes other than his own, then there can be no possible objection to his use of any private language he likes. He was exactly in this position when he



It is th2t of sainthood. Genet S3YS that, for him fa rl1iltflfl is the most beautiful word in human language, md he claims

that bothhc and a number ofthe c.hatactets in his novels and plays are inspired by the desire to become saints. SoIang~ in To,Ml1itk, speaks ofeme eternal couple of the crimin,l and the saini. and Genet says of Divine~ the homosamU prostitute of Ow L44J oj lilt FI01J.'trs. that he will 'gradually

delivet her from evil, 21ld, holding her hi the lund. Jean her to s2intliness'. His own ambitio~ he daims in Tk Toiy'J JtJlI1'1J(Zl, is to mve people say of him 'he is ~ saint-or, preferablY, he W2S 2. saint'. Few aspects of Genet's worle ue more difficult to understand 2nd a.ppteciatc dun this insistence upon sainthood, especiaIIyas the concept is never intcgnted into the plot of his novels and phys in the way that his treatment of evil and homosf!XU31ity is. It thus tem3i n s on the swface of his 'Work, appattntly Sl purely vetWl manifestation of tmt desire to shock the bourgeois reader which has cbamcterised so much French littr.ltute since tumattdcism. This, inde~ is the aplarultion which Sarue tenmuvdy puts fOIW2rd at one point in hb study in order to explain the frcqucncywith which Genet mentions sainthood in themost unlikely contexts. Genet, be writes. takes pIeasule in "een· strutting ~bem.nt notions, the aim of which is to shake the tranquil assurance of honest folk'. Later in his 2D2lysis. it is tme. Same rejects his puticu1ar exp1anatio~ and states that Genet's sainthood should be see.n as put ofbis misguided attempt to live on :1 mode of pure I!Xistc:nce r.lther than of eifectivc actiolls but it is llel"ertheJesS difficult to dismiss the Iirst possibility 'llbsoIatdy. Indeed. it is sometimes tempting to go even further than this2 and to inteqJtrt some of Genet's xeuwks about sainthood as delib~te1y saticisiog the more c:m:eme implications ofthe femark by Peguy which GWmn Crlecne placed at the begianing of TOe Hfl1rl oj l/;e Jrflliltr: -NMI r/ul allSli tDlJlpllml fJ11t k pi(@ til 1I1at!Jn tfe chrllientl. N IJI, Ii tt tItIl/I rainl.' Thus when Genet wntes m },firlKlt oj the &If that sainthood -is also ttCOgnised by the



following: that it leads to Heaven by way of sin', he is carrying Mautiac's attitude towards Therese Desqueyroux and Graham Greene's view of Pinkie to their logical conclusion: if these characters are saved because of their sin, then Harcamone, the child-murderer, and Divers, the traitor, have an even greater hope of salvation. Once the sinner is equated with the saint, and the theologic.ll virtues of faith, hope and charity discounted in favour of the clearer perception of reality afforded by actually sinning, there is no limit to the claims that can be made. It is e."{tremely doubtful, howeyer, if Genet ever consciously satirises anyone's views. Although a number of passages in Ponpes Flmebres or The Thief's jOllnta/ often produce complete revulsion from the ideas or institutions which he enthusiastically praises, this is almost certainly unintentional. There seems no reason to doubt that he intends his remarks about sainthood to be taken seriously, in spite of the fact that he completely distorts the normal meaning of the word. \Vhat he does is take only two aspects of sainthood-the quest for absolute humility and the renunciation of all human pleasures-and present them as if they were the whole thing. He totally ignores the fact that sainthood has all the other connotations of holiness, patience, moral perfection and genuine deyotion to the wellbeing of others. The characters whom he describes as saints in his books act for the most part in complete defiance of these moral and spiritual values, whose existence Genet does not even mention. This Humpty Dumpty-like attitude towards language raises yet another literary and philosophical question: can a writer expect his readers to follow him when he takes a word and strips it of so many of its normal connotations that he virtually gives it a new meaning? As long as Genet is writing down his stories on sheets of brown paper, and intending them for no eyes other than his own, then there can be no possible objection to his use of any private language he likes. He was exactly in this position when he



rust 'Wrote Oil!' LIiy of Ik F/O»/tTJ, and there is n.o reason to doubt that he did, at the time, think: he lad fullilIed some of the conditions of swthood by seeking out the modes of humilia.tion which he describes retrospectively in TOI Thief: jOllf'tltJl. Yet he seems to forget, when he moves to the second stage of his career as a writer and allows his books to

be printed so that other people an tead them~ that words have a public as well as a. pIivate m=ning. H he is llot deriding the vety concept of sainthood by showing hoW' cDmplete]y its other JJSpec:ts 0Ul be forgotttIl in the quest fOE personal hwnillation, then his continued use of the word shows that, here at least, he bas tot3ltyabandoned the use of language for communication. If Genet were always unintelligible when he writes about teligion, the critiol problem raised by his use of the words 'saint' and 'sainthood' would be less acute. He could be classified as an author with a blind spot.. a man whose King Ola.rles's Head intrudes every time a particular subject arises. Thi$~ however. js far ftom the case.. The very brilliant pages about religion in 011' Ltt/7 tJj Ihi Fhwl,J show that Genet an be just 2S original, perceptive and ironic all this subject as he is on crime: ot' homose~2lity. lndeed, he presents the s~me problem in each case, rutemating between a complete defiance ofnonmllinguistic and moral standards and an implicit acceptance of them, an acceptance which he then uses as ~ basis for communicating a new vision to the reader. Thus, not long before his reference to how Divine.. whom he quillfies as a saint, deliberately causes the death of a two~year~ld girl, Genet writes the following passage about the Virgin l\luy: To be the huttWl mother of a divinity is a Jnorc disturbing lute than that of chvWty. The Mother of Jesus must have hsd ~~ comparable emotions wblle curying bet ,on. Ilnd later. wh!le living and sleeping side by side ~th a son who was God-that lS. ~ everything and heneIC.s wd1-~ho could make the wodd .oor be-. His Mother, Himself not be; III God Eor whom she h3d to pztpare• .... ]~eph.itte Ie from th2.t of young ~ppttmices. AnjD:le ~o treated dclinqaent SO



children gently was guilty oflessening their power to revolt and thereby attain sahration. It was, he said, to criminal children that he was speaking, and he asked them 'never to blush for what they have done, and to keep untouched within them the revolt that makes them so beautiful'. Society, he maintained, had been right to treat the children at l"Iettray with the severity that it had shown when he was there, locking them in cells whose walls were painted wholly in black, allowing them to be tormented by brutal punishments and by the "dolence of their fellow inmates, and making no attempt to reform them. This was how the best traditions of crime were continued. It would, indeed, have been difficult for an official psychiatrist or the director of a modem reformatory to reply to this talk. Had they agreed with Genet's declared meaning, they would have shown themselves totally unsuited, by any civilised standards, for the job they were doing; had they disagreed with him, Genet would have accused them of being hypocritical, and only pretending to treat young criminals humanely. Had they simply replied to Genet that he was being ironic, he would certainly have refused to have his ideas brought down to such a prosaic level. Nevertheless, this would have been the only possible reply for them to have made. Like Genet's second novel, A1irade of the Rose, L'Enfant erin/ille! reads exactly like an ironical work written to criticise the treatment which society metes out to its criminals. Treat young offenders with cruelty and lack of understanding, he seems to be saying, and they will become brutal and defiant, welcoming the punishment you inflict on them as proof that they were right to reject society by committing crimes. The penal reformers who have criticised the use of corporal punishment on the ground that it justifies the violent criminal by answering him in only violent terms are saying no more. Genet's pretended praise for the brutality which he underwent seems, in this context, an easily recognisable metorical device, comparable to Swift's recommendation that the best way to solve Ireland's



O,·ct-population was by selling the cbildrm of the poor :tS swt:tblc food fot the rich man's able. Although Genet would undoubtedly have rejected this intcIpteation, there are two points which he makes at the end of L'EnJ/lIIt Crimir.ti which suggest tlut the talk 1D2y be 3. piece. of conscious socW aiticism. The lint is that no scientist would ever bke ch BJor4k m$ mIH'JI~/s trohird ('the dhic of school nunu:alsJ At :llJ seriously, 2nd th2t society does n.ot reilly belie\-c in the officW ~a1ues to which It tries to convert delinquent children. The second is that society shows ~ fundmtcatd dishonesty when it derives so much of its entertainment from stories about c:imeand yet persecutes the crimjn~t1 himsd£. ·YDIIf' litentun; )'c:tr p3intings. )YJ1Ir after-dinner amusements all cdebmte crime. The talent of yow: poets Ins glorified the crimin31 whom you hate in tc2I life. Allow us, in tum, to despise your poets 2nd your ~ts.' Both of these :lIe intellectuilly nlid points:. :and the second suggests that Gencrs work 11131 pethaps be aimed 2t tephcing the romantic 'View of crime by 3. more accu.r.lte md realistic portnj3l. Edgu Walkce, apF=tIy, seven! times dcdutd that the ordimIy cOrnin,1 W2S 'too lacking in ideas and too spiritless in pe.tfomunce for his offences to be :ilile to be used !IS a model for the crime novel', and Genet's criminal s ue ,.]most p.uodies~ by their stupidity and ug1i~

ness. of the cunning vilhins notm:Uly pIe$ented in fiction. It .is, however. a. fund2ment:U chuacteristic of Genet~s ","ork tklt he ncverpmalts a. mnsistent 2nd integrated intdlecta21 ~ttitude, and does not, in this p3lticular instance, link the delibe!2~ socW aiutism .at the end of V Enfllcl Crimi!!!1 with the possi'ble irony of the part.. It 2.~ .resembles Alj,.tJr/~ if RNt, where he jumps from a. gJ0ri5Oltion to a debunking of crime md cills }' .2 heaven 2nd a hell on vittuallj the S2me pzgc. The zeswr is th3t, in both books, the IC'lder Dever knows what Gen~s ret! opinion is or whether his most socW airicism is ddibet:ltc or accidental. It is perh2ps in L'&11,/ Cril'Awl and .Ali,pk ~ the .&1, that this puticu1u dichotomy between Gcnet·s declared




intentions and actual achievements as a writer is most blatant. However easy it may be, and however justified by the kind of information he givcs, to see both books as reasoned and reasonable social criticism e.~pressed through the use of irony, nothing that Genet has ever said about himself indic.'l.tcs that he would endorse such an intcrprctation. It is, ne,·crthclcss, especially tempting to see both the plot and atmosphere of 111iracle of the Rose as an indictment of the French prison and reformatory service, and a protest against the cruelty and suffering which it creates. The noyel tells how Harcamone, a former inmate of Mettray, is bctrayed to the police by another former inmate called Divers. Harcamone then. deliberately kills a prison warder in order to escape from the living hell of a life sentence, and is executed aftcr spending forty-fi,rc days chained up in the condemned cell. Genet comments on how deliberate Harcamonc's action was, and pretends to reply to the objection that a mere petty thief could not build up his life 'minute by minute, witnessing its construction, which is also a progressive destruction'. \Ve must remember, he says, that Harcamone was 'a former colonist of Mettray who had built his life there minute by minute, one might almost say stone by stone, as had all the othcrs, in ordcr to bring to completion the fortress most insensitive to men's blows'. The tone is that of the rcbel who, as Genet says in L'Efif011t Crimil1el, is speaking to the ordinary reader 'as a poet and an enemy', trying to defend the nobility of crimc. The facts as set down, howcvcr, show both the failure of society and the complete lack of honour among thievcs: all ~.fettray did was to toughen and brutalise Harcamone, giving him the strength of desperation which enablcd him to commit a pointless crime; what placed him in the position where he had to kill an innocent man or spend the rest of his life in gaol, was the treachery of his companion in betraying him to the police. In the criminal world as Genet describes it, such acts of betrayal are extremely frequent. Genet hints at the reasons for this when he writes in Olfr Lac!;' -of the Flo1l'ers that



Mignon served the police 'so ~s to return to his place

mlong human beings through having served order, and at the same time to depart from the human through deliberate ba.smess~t and in one of the extIacts {rom the jO/l17Ial till V~/fld' published in UI nil/pI iilt1dmrtr in July 1946~ he satd much the same of himself when he dedan:d that by informing against his companions he re-established his links with society. This is, in fact, precisdy the par.ldox of the m:m who is seeking to be evil nther than to do 'Wrong. The person interested in qualities a.d.mires people for what they :ate nther tb:m for what they do, and Genet is less interested in the h2n:n which his cri.mina1s do to society than in the b3d qualities sucl1 as cowudice or treachery which

their actions bring into being. Although S:tttre himself does not specifically repeat in Saillt Gtr:tl the distinction which he made in his essay on Baudelaire, Genet is far more a rebel than a revolutionuy. He seeks, that is, to defy an existing social and JIlon! order, not to destroy it and put something else in its place. The fonn which his de£ance takes is that of being wicked rather th2n trying to attack society. md Genees insistence upon betmyalfits quite logically into this 2mbition! the treacherous a:imin21 sttengthens society by selling his confederates to the police~ but he uses only evil in his reinforcement of the stlndatds which he rejects. SodoiogiaIlY7 the frequency with which Genet tetuttls to the theme of betnpJ7 pointing out th2.t it: wa.s uni\-enal ~t 1.fettray and making the plot of A[irtK/~ of11M & I t revolve around Divers' betrayal of Huamone. is an essential part of the extremely unflattering picture which he gives of the criminil world. In a wny. it sttmgely contr2dicts his own pcrson21 bc:baviour, for Sart:re and Coct~u tell hoW' Genet deliber.ttely nn the dsk of a life-sentence by assuming tesponsibility for a crime which he bad not COmnUtt~7 but which stained the memory of his friend Jean Decarmn. He roa.y talk, in Thl, about the joy ofb~pal, and describe in Pompts FII1l1brtJ how he sold one ofms fnends to the police and insisted on being paid in his presence~ but in



real life he practically did a Sidney Carton. In practice, he thus confirmed what Frank Norman says in Bang to Rights about there being 'a certain code even among convicts', which leads criminals to go to prison for quite long sentences and for crimes which they have not committed rather than 'grass on their mates'. What Genet did, however, is perhaps less typical than what he describes in his books, for a remark by Christopher Hibbert in The Roots of Evil suggests that whatever Genet's conduct might have been, his insistence upon betrayal does reHect an important aspect of criminal life. The criminal, writes Christopher Hibbert, 'instinctively distrusts the people around him and so sets great store by his own loyalty to the gang and the gang's loyalty to him. The informer is the lowest form of life-the stool-pigeon, the rat'. Even if Genet is not describing what actually happens, he is giving a very perceptive account of the criminal's subconscious obsessions. Social groups, like individuals, condemn most fiercely the sins by which they feel themselves most tempted. The prison in which Harcamone kills the warder in order to escape the life sentence brought about by Divers' treachery is called Fontevrault. It is, as Genet points out, the burial place of the Plantagenet kings, and the warder who registers Genet's arrival makes a little joke about the similarity of names. More inlportant than this fact, however, is the situation of this ex-Cistercian Abbey, which became a prison in 1808: it is situated near Tours, some twenty-five miles from Mettray. The Colonie agrito/e, in Genet's words, thus 'blossomed curiously in its heavy shadow', and the theme of the relationship between the prison and the refonnatory recurs both in the language which Genet uses and in the actual plot of Miracle of the Rose. The boys at Mettray, he writes, 'lived beneath the stem gaze of the Prison, like a village at the foot of a feudal castle inhabited by steel-clad knights', and looked upon the convicts as their heroes. Every act they performed was modelled on those of the prisoners, and they longed for the time when they would



gnldlate, as it were, from this Eto.n to th2t King's. Jt.fost of them, in fact, succ~ded in this ambition, for both Har. amone and Dhl'ers Qrc old boys of A!etttty, and Genet h mst ~ttracted to Bulben, a much younger prisoner. by the fact that he too had been at J\fettray. Genet's own attitude towards prison, however, has evolved since he left }rett~YJ and the account which he gives of this change reinforces the impression that Afirl1f/e of 11M /lore em be read SIS a navel directed against the way in whidt society ttanSfo~ juvenile olFe.adets into hardened crimiaaIs. It also, in 11 number of respects, aims at destroying a romantic conception of crime which Genet now regards as dangerous and misl~diag. Near the begianing of the novel, Genet describes the different kinds of pwtishment trutt exist in pdSOl1: 'the simplest is loss of cmteen privileges, then chy b1'eld, solitary conlinemen~ and, in the state prisons (rmtnrltJ). the disciplinary a:ll. In tha cell (r4111 tk distiP/itrt), the prisone.m march an day in m endless d.rde, and wbc:a Genet is punished on his urival at Fontevrault he£eeIs that he Ius grown up 'without stopping in my round'. -\Vmlt I .mean', he adds in an apy.treatly WK'OnsciOU5 repetition of 'S~des of the ptisoo house begin to close{UpoD. the growing is thlt 'Afetttay. though now destroyed, carries all. continues in time, and it seems to me too that the .toots ofFontQ'nwt are to be found in the vegetable world of our chi1dten's hell '. MinK/I tJ/ 1« R()J~ emphasises the extent to which Genet's J


choice to be a aimioal 'WaS in fact:1 mere endOlSemeat ofhis predestined ~oleas outast and ,apego:lt. Wlw he did when he insisted that he was tri1-cnd thus, in Sarttc's view, aBitmed his dignity-was to Jend his own unneteSS2ry approval to the meviuble process whereby a neglected and abandoned child moves from institution to foster-home,

from foster-bome to tcfonnatory and from rc:fortn:ltoq to prison. When he alls :Metttay 'a hell',. he is plctely :Lg:tinst the views he expresses both elsewhere Jf1 the no'\"Cl. where he says it \V2S fa puadisc?, :and in L~Enflllll Crifllilltl. He is also giving support to the idea tklt both



these works can legitimately be seen as ironic and critical, and this impression is reinforced by his description of how different the real Fontevrault is from the prison of his childish dreams. When he was at Metttay, he had dreamed of splendid criminals, handsome and courageous, and enough of his dream seems to have remained with him for him to write about them in glamorised terms in Le COtldallllle alIforl. He had not then realised what he says in Miracle of the Rose'that prison days were poor days, that the jailed pimps had a. sickly pallor, that they were bloated and unhealthy and that the youngest and least husky of the guards considered it fun to beat them till they cried for mercy with the humility of a famished dog'. Similar passages denouncing the horror and boredom of prison life recw: quite frequently in this novel, and echo the tone of disillusionment introduced early in the book when Genet recognises that criminals in prison are only 'the scurrilous caricature of the handsome criminals I saw in them when I was twenty'. Nevertheless, Genet does not use this realisation to provide either the main framework or the ostensible purpose of the book, which is to glorify Harcamone and show how his death gave rise to the miracle announced in the title. On the contrary, Miracle of the Rose opens with a. passage celebrating Harcamone for having attained the 'death on the scaffold which is our glory', and thus fulfilled Genet's own 'aspiration to heavenly glory' and to 'a saintliness of muted brilliance'. Its closing pages, which describe Harcamone as enjoying a veritable apotheosis, present a complete contrast with Genet's earlier tone of disillusioned realism. Harcamone has already been sentenced to death for killing the warder when Genet sees him at Fontevrault, the first time they have met since they were at Metttay together fifteen years earlier. Harcamone's wrists have been chained together, and in Genet's imagination this chain is transformed 1lefore our astonished eyes into a bracelet of flowers'. Genet happens to have been cutting his toe-nails



with a pair ?£ scissors when Hatc::amone appealS. and he uses these SQSsOt$ to eut off 'the loveliest rose, which W2S hanging by 2 supple stem ne:tr his left wrlst'. This Bowel: ~gery is continued when ~one, brought before the poson governor after he has killed the warder, is described ~s presenting him with 4'a mystety ~s absurd as tM.t of a. rose in full bloom', mld reaches its climax in the dosing passage of the novel. There, the prison govemor, the executioner. the cMplain and !l judge rome to fetch Haramone to the guillotine. Wh(:f4 however, he srmds up in his cdl to greet them, he becomes so huge that the 'four men shrlnIc until they ate no bigger th:m four bedbugs'. The clnpIain and executioner climb up his thigh, pass through a fotest, a. deserted fair-ground, and meet up with the judge and the govemor, who have entered 3D. immense ~e through the

doorway of H~C2mOlle'S ear. Together, tbey go dOWll a coniaor, ana on enteri.o.g H:uamone·s heart of hC2rtS find before them "a ted rose of m01lStrou5 size md beautT. They rush ~ "pushing back the petals and crumpling them with their dtunken bands 2S a. lecher who lw been deprived of sex pushes back a whore's skirt', until they leach the heart of the rose. There, they axe seized with a. kind of giddiness~ and topple into the ~deep gaze' of the well lying at the hc:3rt of 3

the rose. Like the account of Notte-Dame's ttW, this highly poetical accoWlt of how a murdefec is taken olf to be executed c:nablcs Genet to end his portmfal of the criminaJ world on a note oflyrlal enlution. Perhaps more than any other passage in his work, it does come neat to satisfying the definition of poetry suggested in 011f'Lz41 of IDe FlfJ1I!TI: a. poem "al\V:1YS pulls the ground ~way from un~er y,0ur t and sucks you into the bosom of a. wondrous rught • Ag:un like the 2ccount ofNotre-D~c.'s tthl.. this JY.lSs2ge an be inte%ptded as making a. point central to c:mtenti21ist philosophy: th:1t the living .indivjdual em never be comprehended by the 5ySt~tiSed C?Dcepts 1eprc:e.nted here by the judge or the chaplatn. The Jd~ of an allimce between





beauty and ~il, which .is fundament!! to Genet's form.a1 aesthetic, is pethaps more com·L"lcingly re:ilised here tl-..!m in :my other part of his v,·ork. \Themer this passage is intcllcctu2.lly as well as aesthetically convincing is, however, quite another matter. Although Genet told S:trtre that he detested flowC!'S, he constantly uses i.m2gcs associated with them in the dcscripti,e passages of his books. The opening of Tbt Tbiifs JO!lrr.a1, for example, moycs from the statement that corne comic:t's outfit is pink-and-white striped' to the asserdon that Cth!rt is a dvIt rfiafio11.!hip b!h;'un jio:;'rrJ ad u-r.:'icil. Tne fragility and delicacy of the former arc of the same nature as the brutal inscnsitintv of the latter. The susuined fiowcrUmge at the end of ifircd( if fir. .R!m is based on. the same Pascali:m idea that Cia txtrhr.u j ( fo:~b.t:t': llircunone is guilty not only of murdering the m.:m cwho had bullied him least during his m"o years at Fontcnault', but :Uso of having killed a. nine-year-old girl, the crime for wwch he Iud originally been sent to )'fettr.1y. He is thus, from a rational point of new, at the furthest possible remo,e from an. innocent Hower. In the closing pages of ~lfirt:d! if th! &!!, Genet docs far more t:han. dissociate the ethical from the 2.esthetic. He m:lln.t:Uns tlut the greatest bC2.uty is linked to the greatest pet'ersity :md stupidity, and that the con'\"'entionallink between goodness 2nd beauty is therefore completely unjustified. He thus sets himself the greatest possible difficulty if he is interested in communiating his usio~ for it is one thing to say that some types of crime arc 2.S ino.l'licable as mttmillr beautiful objects. and quite another to argue th:at they evoke or deserve the same admiration.. The ending of l.firale oj Ih! Role is certainly a. brilllint piece of imaginati'\"'e writing, with the haunting 2.D.d en'\"'eloping effect of ~ nightmare in which ugliness is changed into bC2.uty while still remaining just as full of horror. But in the same way that 2. pet:5on waking up from ~ nightlmrerecognises that he has been 2&2id only ofsmdows, so the reader who puts down Afirl1~Je if Jk EnS! npidly

90 Jr.AN GENf.T: A STUllY OF HIS NOVELS AND PLAYS CClSes to believe in the inversion of:ill values which Genet's descrjption implies. Lyrical passages such as the description of Harcamone's hst moments do not, however, constitute more th2Zl a rel!ttive1y snWl part ofllfirPt/e of Ih~ RDU. Perhaps evcn more than The Thit.tJ /PlIT11I1/, it is a djr~ct esS3Y in autobiography, 4nd couched for the most put in realistic terms. Genet's ~ccount of 1\{etttay is horrifying but unoriginal. for jt is only his ~ttitude of apparent approval that distinguishes his account from the comparable horror storjes which figure in almost every history of the way in which society Itt! trated juvenile offenders in the put. In a passage omitted from the 1951 edition, GenettelIs howthelt1/~2t l\fettnywclcforcM to aawl across the floot2Ddhowilike dogs in order to obtain a half ration of SOUP. hou.. one of the te:lchers told a boy who rejected some totten meat because it W'aS ~not fit for pigs' tklt ~ou are wone tb:m a pjgJ~:and comments upon the w:ty in which the cruelty of the ~uthorities at l\{ettray merely refiected the gener.1l attitude of society. A .reward was offered to anyone bringing back ~ boy who tried to csape, 2nd Genet claims to h~ve seen ~ peas!U1t bring back one boy he Iud aught and request a further nEty fl21JCS re"'ud for one he claimed to mv-e shot. For all his insistence in

L·E1Ij4ll1 CrilNil1tJ that young criminals long for h2J'Sh treatment, Uld in spite of his procbimed !com for ~e jounWists who sought to refoml it, Genet does qUlte speciliaIly condemn the 'Way he was ttclted at Mettr.1~: he speaks of the 'vile tnetsutes' with which the n~ ~[nv~s were greeted, writes ironially of the -few fonnalitJes ~till accorded to humans' before their life as (()/ons beg31lt pomts out that none of the chiIdterl at l\fettny ever played, that he never saw a newspapet md had to wait three yeu~ to l~ that Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic; and ~escJ:1bes how the clilldrea's bate feet were practicilly strJpped of their Resh by the dogs they had to wear. . . Wh:lt nukes the description which Genet g1ves of his sWferings at Afettr3,y so moving is his sutement that when



he grew 'weary of his orphaned solitude and his soul yearned for a mother', he found that Mettray possessed 'everything that one associates with women: tcnderness, slightly nauseating whiffs from the open mouth, deep, heaving bosom, unexpected punishment, in short, everything that makes a mother a mother'. This longing for a mother inspired the curious figure of Erm:stin(; in Our Lady ()f tbe Flowers and recurs in the triumphant creation of The Mother in The Screens. In Miracle of the Rose, it is ironically underlined by the fact that the strongest and most brutal of the colons were appointed as prefects, called 'elder brothers', and given every licence to bully the younger and weaker boys. Genet claims that the homosexuality which was rampant at Mettray enabled him thus to satisfy thc taste for incest which he also flaunts in Our Loti) of the Flo1lws, but the remark that 'I was sixteen years old. I was alone in the world. The Colony was my universe. No, it was the Universe. Family B was my family' leaves a very different impression. In the same way as Genet's description of the visit he made to Mettray after it had been closed down recalls the traditional visit which the romantic hero pays to the deserted ancestral home, so the account which he gives of his childhood in Miracle of the Rose also has similarities with the romantic theme of the lonely and misunderstood child. The difference lies in the fact that Genet has genuine cause for grief, and the curious tone of defiance in which he writes of Mettray only underlines the intensity of his suffering. At times, Miracle of the Rose thus has almost a Dickensian note, as if Oliver Twist had been written by one of Fagin's successful but sentimental pupils. Again near the beginning of the novel, Genet speaks of an earlier period in his life when he did attain 'the clear simplicity of manliness' by becoming a professional cracksman and acquiring the technical skill needed to burgle houses efficiently. He freed himself, he writes, from 'a state of painful torpor, from a low, shameful life taken up with prostitution and begging ... by and for a prouder attitude',


J1:AN GfNE"r: A


~d .the passage in whidt he describes this change is unique m his wotk for a numbe: of t~ons. As 5uue points out. it is almost cett2in1y not a fun